This is the second part of the profile of Pete Townshend that I wrote for Melody Maker in May, 1974. I think at the time that MM was running a series called The Giants Of Rock, and each month we featured a fairly lengthy profile of top flight rock stars. This one on Pete was the only one I was asked to write, probably because I had my hands full running MM’s US coverage at the time. To be honest, I’d have been a bit miffed if they’d asked anyone else to do it.
The first part ended with the success of Tommy and Leeds as a stop-gap follow-up.
Another shot taken at Jacksonville, August 7, 1976, one of the batch if pictures from this show sent to me by Mark Starcke.
Time passed and nothing happened. Townshend himself must have been going through mental torture at this time, knowing that unsympathetic observers were writing him off as a one-shot while he was desperately trying to come up with something new that would stand alongside Tommy.
His first attempt, now referred to as the Lifehouse Project, failed although the ideas behind it seemed sound enough. For Lifehouse, Townshend wanted to involve a bunch of Who fans with the group to such a degree that the whole complement became one big rock group. Then they’d compose together and the resultant action and music would form both a film and an album.
Practically, of course, it could never work and all that came from the idea were a number of rehearsals at the Young Vic Theatre near Waterloo Station which ultimately resulted in the tracks on their Who’s Next album.
The group themselves were dissatisfied with this record. Townshend obviously felt he could do better, but it did produce a great single in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and a good quantity of other tempting rock offerings. Any other band would have been well proud of this album, despite its bad taste sleeve design.
The Who continued touring and Townshend became one of the most quoted of all rock personalities, simply because he was such a good talker. Townshend thinks a great deal about rock and its place in today’s society; he also thinks about its future and comes up with ideas which, although often impractical, are always interesting.
There was another long delay following Who’s Next, punctuated only with the release of Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, an anthology album of greatest hits and others. Townshend has stated publicly that this is his favourite Who album because it sums up their career and takes the band back to their roots so well.
Though Who buffs would probably own all the material on the album, it is certainly the most recommended for the beginner. But there still remained the nagging thought that Townshend had yet to produce an album to match Tommy which was, by this time, becoming something of a sore point within the group.
It was generally known that they were fed up to the back teeth with playing the music, even though fans continued to lap it up, and there followed a lengthy period of inactivity for the band. Townshend himself put out a sort of solo album called Who Came First, dedicated to Meha Baba. It was a surprisingly quiet affair, on which the tracks were as unlikely as the arrangements. There was Jim Reeves’ ‘There’s A Heartache Following Me’, apparently Baba’s favourite commercial song, and a Baba prayer which Townshend set to music. It was all sweetness and light, a far cry from the violent, prancing figure of The Who’s stage show.
The rest of the band went their own ways, too. Roger Daltrey put out his first solo music and had a hit single on his own. John Entwistle stepped up his solo output and talked about a new group called Rigor Mortis which he was forming as an additional activity to The Who. Keith Moon went into films and looning full time.
Then there were faint rumblings in the early part of last year that something was happening at last. There was talk that they’d bought their own recording studio in Battersea because they weren’t satisfied with anything else around and that hard work was in progress fitting the place out.
Long sessions were taking place morning, noon and night and Townshend was, for once, refusing interviews in case his concentration on the project in hand wavered. His attention didn’t waver and Quadrophenia was the result, finally burying Tommy once and for all. Quadrophenia is a story of mods and The Who’s own background, containing some brilliant rock numbers and far and away the most ambitious production job the group had ever attempted.
Significantly, perhaps, Kit Lambert’s name re-appeared on the sleeve production credits, but the whole epic double package was really Townshend’s creation. He wrote the entire score for Quadrophenia even though the initial idea is credited to Daltrey. Townshend arranged the piece – no mean feat in itself – and his guitar playing stands up to the highest critical standards.
Though Townshend himself would be the first to knock his skill on the guitar, Quadrophenias shows him to be up there with Page, Clapton and Beck in skill and technique. Visually, of course, he’ll forever be streets ahead. The sheer scope of Quadrophenia reflects the scope of the man’s imagination. He aims high and often reaches higher still. Few artists in rock are capable of the concentration involved in producing epics of the size of Quadrophenia.
Peter Townshend is the perfectionist’s perfectionist. Many bands would swop a date-sheet of good gigs for one of The Who’s bad nights, but Townshend, whose temper breaks out on these occasions, takes the matter to his heart and fist. It was only recently that he physically attacked Bob Pridden, The Who’s most respected sound engineer, when something went wrong during a show at Newcastle. And Pridden has been with The Who since they started*.
But he still hasn’t lost his sense of humour, even though he has aged considerably since those early, crazy days. He’ll still kick a TV set in if the mood takes him, and celebrate a good show by throwing cream cakes over one and all. The glint in his eye is forever there.
His guitar wrecking now seems confined to rare occasions. Usually it occurs after a particularly good or particularly bad performance. What Townshend considers to be an average performance will not end in the once nightly ritual of snapping a Gibson twixt neck and fretboard. And nowadays, of course, he could afford to smash three a night.
There are fewer more exciting spectacles in rock than watching Townshend put all his energies into the destruction of a Gibson Les Paul guitar that has apparently displeased him.
It’s a merciless onslaught and while the guitar purists may frown at what they consider to be a cheap (or too expensive) gimmick, anyone who has watched the spectacle from close quarters will know how the adrenalin flows when the neck finally parts company with the body. And to sacrifice the remains to the crowd is surely the ultimate in showmanship – as Caesar proved in Rome.
No appreciation of Townshend would be complete without mention of the legendary demo discs he produces for the rest of the band before they enter the studio to begin recording.
At home in his private studios, Townshend painstakingly overdubs everything until he has produced a solo single of his own. This he duplicates and sends out to the other three so that they may learn their parts, and improve on them before the actual group recording. In hushed corridors it’s said by those who have heard Townshend demos that they frequently rival the finished product**.
To this end Townshend is a competent drummer, bassist and keyboard player. He also tampers with Moogs and synthesisers and possesses a rather nasal but fine and pure singing voice. He hasn’t the power of Daltrey, but it serves to offset The Who’s violence in music with more thoughtful lyrics here and there.
It was no secret that he was heavily into drugs until influenced by Baba. The Who were the mod band and mods took uppers and downers until they rattled when they danced. Townshend has since appeared on TV discussions relating his experiences with drugs and emphasising that through Baba he has found a better way of dealing with the problems of life.
Townshend is also something of a Good Samaritan in the field of rock. He discovered Thunderclap Newman and produced their number one hit ‘Something In The Air’; he was associated with the early acceptance of Golden Earring; he encouraged Eric Clapton to perform on stage again at the two London Rainbow shows last year – but was happy to take a relatively back seat when it came to the actual playing.
Today he’s a family man with a wife and two daughters living by Eel Pie Island near Twickenham. He involves himself in all facets of rock and is keenly aware of The Who’s need to carry on live performances in all parts of the world. He will not be dictated to by business demands.
“I am the business,” he was once quoted as saying when a record company were anxious for a new Who release.
He can write interesting newspaper articles: three years ago he wrote a series of thought provoking articles on the rock scene in the Melody Maker.
As 1974 turned, Peter Townshend could look back on a satisfying ten years. He is a perfect member of our exclusive rock giants clubs, always striving for better things and always maintaining a super-high standard in whatever he does. He’s still out there playing and intends to carry on as long as The Who can survive.
Over the last eight years I’ve watched The Who perform upwards of 25 times, and at least 20 of these have been within the last three years. On every occasion they have brought me to a peak of excitement that may happen once or twice with others but never every time.
For that I have to thank Peter Townshend.
* Actually since December 15, 1966, when Bob made his roadie debut a gig at the Locarno Ballroom, Streatham in South London.
** This was written long before Pete’s demo were made available on the Scoop albums and elsewhere of course.